Milan (AFP) – Napoli’s Dries Mertens hit a brace in a thrilling 2-1 win at Roma that prompted Giallorossi coach Luciano Spalletti to virtually concede the Serie A title race to Juventus on Saturday.
“We have to be realistic. For us it’s now almost impossible to catch Juventus,” said Spalletti after a morale-crushing defeat that could leave Roma 10 points adrift in second place if the Turin giants beat Udinese away on Sunday.
Belgium midfielder Mertens was given the nod ahead of striker Arkadiusz Milik despite the Poland star’s recent return from a five-month injury lay-off.
And coach Maurizio Sarri’s intuition to keep deploying the Belgian midfielder as his main striker was proved right during an end-to-end thrill-fest that saw Napoli soak up long spells of pressure before seeing Mertens punish Roma’s leaky defence.
Napoli took a 1-0 lead into half-time at the Stadio Olimpico after Mertens struck against the run of play to flick the ball over onrushing Wojciech Szczesny on 26 minutes.
Mertens completed his brace, taking his league tally for the season to 18 goals, five minutes into the second half with another cool finish following Lorenzo Insigne’s inswinger towards the back post.
When Kevin Strootman reduced arrears on 89 minutes it sparked a dramatic late fightback from Roma that saw Pepe Reina acrobatically palm Diego Perotti’s deflected drive off the crossbar before clearing with his leg.
But Napoli, who saw Sarri sent to the stands for dissent midway through the second period, held on for a valuable win.
After virtually dropping out of title contention last week following a 2-0 defeat to Atalanta which left them trailing Juventus by 12 points, Napoli are now just two points behind Spalletti’s men in the race for the second automatic Champions League spot.
Napoli maintained their media blackout, imposed two weeks ago following club president Aurelio De Laurentiis’s public criticism of their performance in a 3-1 Champions League defeat to Real Madrid.
But Sarri didn’t need to sing Mertens’ or Napoli’s praises. Spalletti and one of his players did it instead.
“They were much better than us in terms of speed and passing the ball around,” added Spalletti. “In the first half we couldn’t go any faster, and they made it difficult for us to win back possession.”
“We almost came back to grab a draw but they were better than us,” Perotti told Premium Sport.
Napoli’s win is a potential setback for the few teams hoping a late-season charge will secure a third-place finish and possible entry to the Champions League.
Surprise packages Atalanta sit fourth, six points behind Napoli before hosting Fiorentina on Sunday.
An upset for the hosts in Bergamo could see Lazio, just one point behind in fifth before travelling to Bologna late Sunday, leapfrog Atalanta.
Inter Milan, two points shy of Lazio in sixth place and without a Champions League appearance since 2012, face Cagliari away on Sunday.
Even before Napoli’a win at Roma took their lead over Inter to nine points, Nerazzurri coach Stefano Pioli expressed his doubts of a third-place finish.
“I couldn’t say,” Pioli said Friday. “Because it doesn’t just depend on us. Now, our focus is on Cagliari, where it won’t be easy to win.”
Elsewhere Saturday Sampdoria got back to winning ways after two successive draws, adding to relegation-haunted Pescara’s woes in the process with a 3-1 win at the Luigi Ferraris.
Bruno Fernandes gave the hosts an 18th minute lead and although Alberto Cerri had Pescara level-pegging on the half-hour, second-half goals from Fabio Quagliarella and Patrick Schick wrapped up the points.
Samp moved up one place to ninth, one place above the Torino side of England ‘keeper Joe Hart, who is in action at home to struggling Palermo on Sunday.
In Saturday’s late game AC Milan, seventh at just one point behind Inter, host Chievo.